DONORA – Tom Nobili earned a dime per game as a boy in the 1960s while manually setting pins at a duckpin bowling alley in a Donora social club.
If he was lucky, he went home with $3 in his pocket and without bruises from wayward bowling balls while managing a couple of lanes at the American Croatian Citizens Club that was built in 1951 and survives as a time capsule to an American midcentury modern pastime.
“They treated us good back then,” said Nobili of Rostraver Township, who now manages the lanes at the club at 329 Castner Ave., which will open them to the public Saturday in an attempt to get more people interested in the game.
The Croatians were among many immigrants who came to Donora for work after a steel mill rose in 1901 in the downtown along the Monongahela River. The American Steel & Wire Co., a division of U.S. Steel, and a zinc mill employed thousands of men and women and it drew a population of 15,000 people to Donora by the early 1900s. Donora’s population has dramatically declined in the years since the mills closed by about 1960.
“What a wide open town this was in terms of ethnicity,” said Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Historical Society’s archives.
Some steel towns in the Pittsburgh region had one or two dominant immigrant populations in the early 1900s, but there were almost too many of them to count in Donora, he said.
Steelworkers in Donora came from countries that included Spain, Russia, Italy, Slovakia, Scotland and Croatia, and each of them at one time had a social club.
Charlton also said the duckpin bowling alley that survives in Donora is an indication the club’s members wanted to have something American-inspired in their building.
“They were doing what the elite people were doing,” he said.
It remains a mystery as to who invented the game and where it started, said Stan Kellum, executive director of the National Duckpin Bowling Congress in Maryland.
Kellum said there are Connecticut newspaper archives that show the game being played there in 1889, while others believe it was invented near Baltimore in the early 1900s by two minor league baseball players, John McGraw and Wilber Robinson, who decided to “shave the pins down.”
Duckpins are 9 1/2 inches tall, 6 1/2 inches shorter than the traditional 10-pin game. It’s played on lanes 60 feet long, the same length as those found in regular 10-pin alleys.
“When the pins are hit they jump like a flock of ducks taking off,” Kellum said.
The six duckpin lanes in Donora nearly fill the first floor of the club, where there are two rows of benches for players and an Art Deco-style desk used by the person who manages the action.
The game is supposed to be more difficult to play than regular bowling.
“It’s a challenge. There’s no doubt about it,” Nobili said.
“It is difficult to score a perfect game,” said Mundo Amicucci of Donora. “I just love duckpin bowling,” he said.
By the 1950s the game was popular across the Mon Valley among steelworkers who competed in tournaments in Uniontown, as well as in Monessen and McKeesport.
Today, the Croatian Club members compete against each other because the local leagues have disappeared.
“It caught on, grew up around industrial areas,” Kellum said. “It was a blue-collar game.”
“It was the thing in the 1950s,” said Donora Councilwoman Marie Trozzo. “It was on TV. I was here from day one,” said Trozzo, who also set pins at the club in her youth.
The Cro Club, as it is known locally, was wealthy in the 1950s, so much so that it came under investigation by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee for possibly having Communist ties, Charlton said.
He said the club became caught up in the paranoia surrounding then-U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt because its members were sending large sums of money to their relatives in Croatia, Charlton said.
“There was money there,” he said.
Now in an era when many Americans prefer electronic games over activities in the real world, the number of duckpin bowling leagues has drastically declined.
The congress, which oversees games played with pins unlike those in Donora that have rubber bands around them, had 115 leagues in 2015, down more than 500 houses in the late 1960s, Kellum said. Two duckpin houses survive in the Johnstown area, he said.
The Donora pins, when hit by a ball, waddle like ducks to the floor because of the rubber bands.
Kellum said his organization is hearing new versions of the game, including Route 66 Duckpin Bowling, are popping up in arcades across the nation. The arcade Games N’ At on Pittsburgh’s South Side offers the Route 66 game, according to its website.
The Donora club is hoping that a trend among those who are now entering adulthood who are shopping and playing more in brick-and-mortar destinations will bring new faces into its alley.
“You’d be surprised (at how many) people never heard of duckpin bowling before,” Nobili said.
In an effort to reach out to new duckpin bowlers, the club will open its lanes to the public from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday.